The "stone town" of Meteora, in the northwestern part of Thessaly, is a unique monastic place with a distinct character due to the strange giant rocks, on some of them are housed Byzantine monasteries with great history. For the travelers and adventure enthusiasts, the huge rocks are one of the best climbing areas.
Text - Photos: Argyro Athanasopoulou
We decided to get a taste from this other aspect of Meteora, even though we were not very fond of the sport...
By car or by train from Athens and Thessaloniki.
Kalambaka is 356 km from Athens and 236 km from Thessaloniki.
Kastraki is 3 km from Kalampaka.
The nightfall is spread over the Thessalian plain and we are not prepared for any change of the landscape at about 350 km from Athens, as we approach Kalambaka.
Suddenly the monotony of the plain is interrupted by the view of a group of huge rocks that rise from the earth to the sky. This is a unique spectacle in Greece.
After arriving at our accommodation, we head to the balcony of the room to see this different place closer. In front of us, we face the huge rocks which are lit up with artificial lighting, intensifying the already impressive image of the unearthly landscape.
The small village Kastraki, which looks like it is nesting in the arms of Meteora, is the only image that betrays the cosmic life of the place. Being viewers of a unique show with a wonderful scenery and music that soothes the wilderness of the image, we bow to the greatness of the nature of the area that offers us an original welcome.
Well rested and full of energy - a benefit of sleeping in the countryside, we take a rich breakfast. In the dining room, the huge window offers us unobstructed view of Meteora under the sun's rays.
The light of the day calms the wilderness of the giant gray-brown rocks, which in some places exceed the altitude of 300 m and helps to distinguish the famous monasteries in some peaks as a natural end of the rocks.
With the alliance of the weather, having sunshine and a clear sky, we start guessing where we would climb. The rocks on the top of which are monasteries are excluded, since there it is not allowed to climb.
Shortly before we get into practice
The appointment with the experienced climbers from the company Nature In Action who have the task to guide us at our big venture, was set at the camping area just below Meteora, the favorite place to stay for the climbers.
In the small cafe in front of the campsite, we overwhelm the specialists with our numerous questions, while we stare at the huge rocks and do not understand how we can climb on these steep and almost vertical slopes!
Around us, the groups of climbers take their ropes and hit the road to the base of the rocks. There are approximately 900 climbing routes that have been carved on the surface of the rocks of Meteora.
"Let's go?" asks Lucas Pratilas, head of our group and owner of the company. After giving us detailed instructions, we look forward to feeling the thrill of climbing, according to the saying of the experienced.
After ten minutes, we are at the base of the rock, where the beginners usually do their first steps. At the back of the rock, at Meteoro Doupiani, are relatively easy routes.
It is the place where during the 11th century, before the organized monasticism was established, the ascetics from the surrounding caves were gathering on Sundays.
Now it is a meeting point for the aspiring climbers. Ruins of Doupiani's sketis (house of the monk) on the rock are visible from below.
As the team from Nature In Action prepares the equipment, we look around us and we see many climbers already ascending on taller and steeper rocks, defying gravity.
We find out that these giant geological formations are not as smooth as they appear. They consist of small and large crocks mixed and held tightly with dirt, one above the other and they are protruding from the surface of the rocks, which as we shall see along the way, will be very useful to us.
Their relief form is complemented by vertical slits that start from the top and fade at their base.
And the time has come...
The leader of the group wears the climbing harness and puts on the ropes. On it hang special safety rings and other small metal objects, which are used for rock climbing.
He wears his helmet and the special climbing boots, while explaining to us the usefulness of each one of these items, in his attempt to get us acquainted with the rock climbing sport.
He applies a special white powder in his hands to prevent him from slipping and he begins confronting the rough surface of the rock.
As soon as he reaches the first bolt that is nailed to the rock, placed by the engravers of the route, he fixes the ropes and starts climbing expertly uphill. As observers for the time being, we feel strongly the anxiety of his efforts and try to understand his moves and their expediency.
"Relay," shouts the leader of the team and, as logically, everyone determines the word as per his own experiences. However, our fellow climbers explain to us, that this is the special safety anchor at the end of a route or part of it.
The first climber who gets there, must announce it. "Secured" he yells as the rules of the sport require, the signal that it is the turn of the next climber.
As long as we are down and our feet step on the ground, climbing seems easy and we are waiting with expectation for our turn. We are tied up by an experienced one, and we start climbing one in a row.
And the adventure starts...
We shout "climbing" to let the leader know that we start climbing. All the moves, bindings and the commands that climbing requires, are also essential to make the sport one of the safest.
We know that even if we do not step correctly, we will not fall but we will hang on the rope and we will stay floating. This is a big deal.
With our hands, we are looking for small stones that protrude from the rock and look for others with the tips of our shoes that help us in our effort.
We follow the instructions and our instinct. Sometimes the search for the best next "step" takes time because of our inexperience as it is our first time. But the excitement that we are going up, that we are defeating our fears and that we are testing our limits, prevails.
The encouraging words of the leader watching us from above help us a lot. When we reach the relay, the leader tights us up with a belt and gives the signal for the next one. Until everybody has come up, following the promptings of the experienced ones, we rely on our legs, we leave our hands off the strap that is fastened to the safety ring and we let our body hang.
From the moment we overcome our fear, the feeling that we are in some way floating is unique.
We observe everything around. At the top of the meteor opposite us, we can see a monastery.
The miracle of nature, ideally matched with the human presence, a picture that you cannot see elsewhere in the world and an unmistakable proof of the power of human will.
We are wondering how the monks with the will to move away from the mundane, were able to climb up there with so little means but with a lot of faith.
Tradition says that the ascetics tied ropes to the eagle's legs and when the ropes were hooked on the tops, they used them to climb up.
In fact, the daring climbers arrived there with the system of scaffolding and constructing wooden stairs. The needed materials and all the necessary things were transferred by a net that the monks had made by themselves.
These truly original climbers of Meteora, defying the laws of nature, seeking to come closer to God, succeeded in creating these famous monasteries-jewels that offer us a unique spectacle.
So here, between heaven and earth, where the perception prevails that man can do incredible things, if he sets himself goals, we test our endurance. 30 meter more.
"Shall we continue?” asked the leader and we, without thinking, said yes. From 30 meters, we target at 60, where the top is. We continue with the same procedure, with the experts of the sport to give again precision courses with their movements.
The rock is becoming more vertical and we use the relief of the surface, the recesses and the protrusions, trying to hold ourselves and step on. Although the slope is steeper, we are less tense than at the first part of the route and we enjoy the ascent as the elevation is increasing.
The voices from the other climbing teams, on the neighboring rocks, give us strength, as we realize that we are not alone. The conquest of the top is followed by the accolades from the leading ones and coincidentally, we hear the sound of the bell from the opposite monastery.
The stone town was called "Miracle of the East" by the catholic foreign travelers of the 17th century and the characterization looks absolutely perfect from the 60m of altitude.
Looking at Meteora's "forest" our imagination plays games with these rocky shapes which resemble sometimes with giant faces and others with towering castles-eyed guards that protect the plain of Kalambaka and Kastraki.
From the western side, we can see the tops of Koziakas and Pineios river floating to the sea. We rest and in a book that is on the top of every rock, we write down our names and the date of our accomplishment.
We become devotees of Meteora, the preserved and protected monument of mankind, as it is declared by UNESCO.
Now, we will start to descend, the so-called "rappel"
Fully secured with legs perpendicular to the face of the rock, we walk on it with our bodies parallel to the ground. Soon we realize that there is no need to hold up tight the rope that helps us downhill, so we relax and we enjoy our descend.
"Free rappel", everybody shout as soon as our feet touch the ground, puffed up with pride that we managed to get closer to the sky, climbing just 60 meters, which for a beginner is as if he has conquered Everest.
We picked up the equipment and we headed to Kastraki to eat. After the “baptism”, we followed the beloved habit of all the climbers: Laughing with the mistakes of the beginners and teasing the experts' accomplishments.
We satisfied our hunger in the best possible way, in a very good mood. After this first fully successful effort, the yearning for a new climbing experience was born and will remain undimmed until we conquer the next summit.
Pilgrimage to the monastic miracle
We take an asphalt road that crosses Meteora, to visit the monasteries. Between the 14th and the 16th century, 24 monasteries had been created. Today only 6 are functioning, while the rest of them are ruins on the rocks testifying their existence.
Among them the most important is the Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior or the Great Meteora.
In the middle of the 14th century, Saint Athanasios Meteoritis, chose the highest peak (613 meters) of the largest of the rocks, to establish the first monastery, with 14 monks at the beginning, the Monastery of the Great Meteor, on an area of 50 acres.
The name Meteora, was given by Saint Athanasios, to the so-called "Platy Lithos” and was kept since, for all the rocks and the monasteries. With the founding of the Monastery of Metamorphosis, basically the first community in Meteora started, which is now the largest and most important monastery complex of the Hellenic area, after Mount Athos.
The lift-basket and the aerial ladder, which the monks used to reach at the monastery, were succeeded in the early 20th century by over 100 carved stairs, making the monastery accessible to ordinary pilgrims too. Going up the stairs, we can distinguish the traces of the old climbing means, in the old tower with the spinning wheel.
At the entrance of the Monastery is the hermitage of St. Athanasios Meteoritis. It is worth seeing the ossuary, the old galleys and the cellar.
The visit to the temple dedicated to the Metamorphosis of the Savior, will sooth your soul, while artistically it will gain your admiration.
The wonderful altarpiece is wood carved and the hagiography and the dimensions of the temple are stunning. It also has an impressive library where over 600 manuscript codes of the 14th century are kept.
The great countertop (dining room) of the Monastery has been converted into a museum where precious heirlooms are preserved, such as sacred vestments, utensils, portable icons, masterpieces of extraordinary miniature artworks.
As we wander around the monastery's neat and full of flowers courtyards, our soul is flooded by happiness and soothing feelings.
We admire the panoramic views over the other churches of Meteora, Peneios river and Mount Koziakas, having the impression that we fly.
-The Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior is celebrating on August 6th and on April 20th the memory of its founders.
Seize the day and let's go hiking
The experience of rock climbing is outstanding, but the familiarity with the particular environment of the "stone town" can only be accomplished by walking on the treadmill paths that "run" between and on the boulders.
Starting from the community of Kastraki, we are walking towards Adrachti (spindle), a name that has been given to the rock because of its shape which refers to the instrument used for spinning the wool but in giant dimensions.
Soon we are walking through a dense green setting that is in a complete contrast with the dry and steep rocks. At the foot of the huge rocks, there is another world full of green.
We meet two small churches which remind us that we are in Meteora. The route is slightly uphill with stairs, while in some logs we see red marks, indicating that we are on the right track.
Small turtles and colorful butterflies accompany us while the sounds of nature give the ideal pace for walking. After a quarter, we reach the clearing at the base of Adrachti that stands completely vertically above the earth, a big challenge for rock climbers.
A little further down from Adrachti, a steep slope "calls" only the experts of our group to continue climbing. We direct to the left, with a lot of attention, to a steep water spout which leads to a path with rock-carved stairs.
It is the rock of Agia, where the ruins of the Monastery of the Holy Apostles are. At the end of the cliff, a white cross stands facing Kalambaka and the view from this point is breathtaking and compensates the bold for the tedious and difficult climb.
In Adrachti, we look at the panoramic photographs that the lucky ones captured from the rock of Agia, hoping next time to try it too and excited we return to Kastraki.
The exploration of the other paths will be the reason for a new excursion to this particular and mysterious place that dominates the prefecture of Trikala and is one of the most marvelous creations of nature where man has added his own elaborate touches.